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Vol. 15, No. 32 Week of August 08, 2010
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

AK-WA Connection 2010: Company thrives with soft-sided camps

One-stop service celebrates 31 years of offering home comforts in remote Alaska to resource explorers and government employees

Rose Ragsdale

Alaska-Washington Connection

Taiga Ventures got its start more than three decades ago when a senior geologist working for Union Carbide in Anchorage phoned a young man who held an explosives handler’s license and asked for his help.

“He contacted me out of the blue,” recalled Mike Tolbert. “As time went on, he kept calling me, asking me to do things. Next thing I knew, I was extremely busy working out of my house, primarily for clients in exploration for oil. So I went down and got a business license.”

The year was 1979 and oil exploration was booming in Alaska. Tolbert hurried to meet growing demand for a variety of remote logistics services within the state’s natural resources industry. Working with a single truck, he launched Taiga Ventures, a firm that specializes in providing businesses with temporary camps in remote locations for just about any purpose and on short notice.

Another call after the oil spill in Prince William Sound in 1989 helped sustain the business as did numerous government cleanup projects over the years in the Aleutian Islands.

Today, Taiga Ventures routinely assembles the best and most modern equipment to establish what amounts to miniature towns in the middle of the bush, far from roads, power and infrastructure of any kind.

Availability and expertise

In three decades, the firm’s score of full-time employees have developed exceptional skills in rolling out everything needed for custom-designed, soft-sided camps. Seemingly at the drop of a hat, the facilities come together, complete with power, water and communications as well as tents and supplies and the trained and certified personnel to keep them running smoothly. The tents and life support components are designed for rapid mobilization, and Taiga can ship them anywhere on short notice.

“We’re always available, for just about anything,” Tolbert said.

Clients also get the benefit of Taiga’s experience in expediting along with central receiving and forwarding of field gear, transportation from the airport and over-wintering of equipment. Additionally, clients receive the kind of meticulous planning and consultation required for projects in remote and often sensitive areas of Alaska.

The contractor provides an array of camp permitting services, including negotiation of complex regulations for land use, health and safety, fuel storage and rights of way. Camp managers supervise operations, maintain essential equipment and ensure a smooth relationship between the support crew and clients. Taiga also provides trained camp support staff, fuelers, camp attendants, bear guards and state-certified food handlers to assist in maintaining the camp for the comfort, convenience and safety of the client.

Customers can choose from a range of fuel systems, all-weather shelters, fresh and wastewater treatment/filtration systems and any and all appliances and shelters to make their remote camp comfortable and functional.

Taiga also supplies four-wheelers with trailers, boats, forklifts and generators. The firm even offers a variety of fun diversions for off-hours activities, from volleyball and horseshoes to board games, reading materials, TV/DVD and even satellite entertainment, depending on the location.

Custom camps

Taiga’s camps can be as simple or as complex as a client dictates. For example, Taiga Ventures has provided opening camps for many large mining operations in the state and for hundreds of exploratory camps for natural resources. Companies involved in oil and minerals exploration, as well as government agencies doing research, environmental cleanups or fighting wildfires have called on the Taiga’s services over the years.

“Every camp is different. We design them to fit the client’s specifications,” Carole Romberg, Taiga’s administrative director, said in a recent interview.

“A couple years ago, we did a camp out at Ambler where we set up tents for several (different) crews and for our own people as well. There are all kinds of considerations. Our operations and contracting people know how to design a camp – water, road accessible, permitting for the land.”

In 31 years, industry and others venturing into remote Alaska have required increasingly complex technology, environmental protection and safety awareness. Taiga’s expertise has increased in parallel with the challenges that industry faces.

Sometimes the unexpected makes Taiga’s jobs even more demanding. A day camp established near Nome for Warner Bros. to film scenes for the Steven Seagall movie, “On Deadly Ground,” is a good example. On the day they were scheduled to beginning filming, the producers changed their minds about the location, and required Taiga to dismantle the entire camp and quickly reconstruct a scaled-back version of it near Worthington Glacier outside Valdez.

Weather also can wreak havoc on Taiga’s well-laid plans. In 1989, for example, the contractor took on perhaps its most challenging task, erecting a winter camp for Exxon and Amoco to conduct seismic tests in the Yukon Flats. The 90-day project needed a full working camp for 90 people, but local residents asked that no trace of the camp be left behind when the project ended. An advance party of Taiga personnel flew a helicopter to the site in January and cleared an airstrip so an Otter aircraft could ferry in supplies. When the advance crew landed, it was 54 degrees below zero Fahrenheit and the brutal cold persisted with temperatures dipping further to 70 degrees below.

While the seismic crew worked 18-hour days to get the job done, Taiga’s people kept the camp running, while safeguarding the environment. All waste, including human waste, was incinerated or flown out for disposal, and all wastewater was treated and filtered before being released. Other precautions also were taken, including banning the use of white foam cups and containers, simply because they might be lost in the snow.

“Because the weather stayed cold so long, we had to keep the camp out longer than they had intended. The ice on the lake was literally melting under our feet in April as we dismantled the camp,” Tolbert said with a chuckle.

Taiga had to helicopter everything off the lake to meet the requirements of the contract. In all, the project took 92 days. “We managed to get out of there by the skin of our chinny-chin-chins,” Romberg said.

Steady growth

Taiga has grown slowly since 1979, with the bulk of that growth occurring in the past 10-15 years. The firm’s core work force of 20 employees swells to about 30 workers when part-time help is needed to fully staff the camps.

This year, Taiga expects to take on eight projects. This past winter, it managed camps at Stevens Village and at the Kensington gold mine project near Juneau for Coeur Alaska.

Romberg said the bulk of the work that the firm gets these days is mining related, but it also occasionally snags an assignment related to environmental cleanup. Most of the camps deployed by the contractor support about 20 workers, though it can handle much larger installations.

Taiga also has branched out, opening a warehouse in Anchorage three years ago to sell Baroid Industrial Drilling mud along with a handful of other products through subsidiary PacWest Drilling Supply. The other products include Boart Longyear drilling supplies, Sample Archive System products and Pacto portable toilets.

Vendors in the Alaska-Washington trade on which Taiga relies for services and equipment include Lynden Inc. and Alaska Structures, based in Kirkland, Wash.

“We use Lynden (for transportation services) because they’ve been marvelous, and we’re in the portable, soft-sided camps business, principally, so we purchase our tents from Alaska Structures,” Romberg said.

Customer service focus

Taiga’s focus on customer service is what keeps its clients coming back.

“It’s just a lot of hard-headedness and stick-to-it-ness. It boils down to service. We’re a 24/7 business. We jump out of bed in the middle of the night to sell a bag of drilling mud,” Romberg said. The customers have come to depend on us over the years because of our service philosophy, and we always provide service with a smile.

Romberg said Tolbert is a major factor in the firm’s success. “His word is good as gold. If people want pink elephants by Tuesday, they know they will get them,” she said. “People also know they are getting a fair shake with Mike.”

Tolbert said Taiga’s focus on providing good service at reasonable costs is the key.

“By staying put and keeping our debt load low, we’ve managed to sustain ourselves without laying people off. We’ve always had something to do,” he said. “We’ve just been lucky.”

Looking ahead, Tolbert said he hopes exploration for oil and minerals will continue to be strong in Alaska.

“You never know. We keep our chin up and keep looking forward,” he said. “We just wake up with optimism that the phone’s going to ring and that something’s going to happen.”

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